*[Watchman and Evangelist; Minutes of Nashville and Lebanon Presbyteries; Manuscript Letters of Rev. J. C. Provine and Thomas Hamilton, Esq.]
ROBERT BAKER was born in Orange county, North Carolina, on the 28th of December, 1795. His parents were James and Sarah Baker. In 1799 they moved from North Carolina to Tennessee, and settled first in Sumner county. After remaining in Sumner a year, they moved again, and settled permanently in Wilson county, in the neighborhood of the Big Spring.
Mr. and Mrs. Baker, the father and mother, were members of the Presbyterian Church in North Carolina. In the revival of 1800, however, they became unsettled in their religious hopes. After a long and careful course of self-examination and prayer, "the Lord was pleased," says my authority, "to open their eyes to a brighter and better light." They became the steadfast friends of the revival, and entered fully into its spirit. The father was an elder in the Presbyterian Church whilst the Old Cumberland Presbytery was in existence. After the organization of the Independent Cumberland Presbytery in 1810, he and his family became Cumberland Presbyterians. The Big Spring congregation was for many years one of the leading congregations of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, and James Baker continued a ruling elder in it till his removal, in his old age, to Western Tennessee.
The parents of Mr. Baker were unusually pious persons. They raised their children with great care. They dedicated them to God in baptism, and believed in the promise which was made to them and to their children. We have a striking illustration of their faith in an incident which occurred in the early life of the son. When he was six or seven years old, he had the misfortune to get a substance of some kind lodged in his windpipe. His friends at the house were alarmed, of course, and thought his life to be in danger. The boy was himself alarmed. In this state of mind he went to his father, who was at work in the field, told him what had happened, and that he feared he would die, and that he did not feel prepared for death. He asked his father to pray for him. They kneeled down together in the field, and the father committed the son to God. At the same time the mother at the house was engaged in a similar manner. The parents retired to bed that night with full confidence that all would be well with their son. When the awoke in the morning they found him entirely relieved. They regarded the whole matter as a very special providence, and from that time seemed to feel that their son belonged to God. This anecdote is worth something, inasmuch as it illustrates the views of our fathers on the subject of prayer. They believed in the efficacy of prayer. A volume might be filled with illustrations of this truth.
At a very early age Robert Baker became seriously concerned on the subject of religion. He was a regular attendant upon the means of grace, and was for years an earnest inquirer. When about eighteen years of age he volunteered for a campaign against the Creek Indians. Of this portion of his life all that is known is, that he was faithful in the discharge of his duties, and secured the confidence and esteem of both the officers and private soldiers with whom he was connected. Amidst all the temptations of a soldier's life his religious impressions remained. Soon after his return home, these impressions were rendered deeper by the exhortations of a sister, who urged him in her dying moments to prepare to meet her in heaven. At a camp-meeting at the Big Spring he was in deep distress. His distress continued through the meeting, and at its close he went home with a heavy heart. He spent the day of his return from the meeting in earnest prayer for the salvation of his soul. About dark his parents, who had become uneasy about him, started to the grove where he had passed the time to look after him. In the meantime his mind had become relieved, and he met them in their search with the glad intelligence. I suppose his profession of religion to have been made in 1817, or in 1818, when he was of course in his twenty-second or twenty-third year.
Mr. Baker's mind was turned toward the work of the ministry soon after he professed religion. He endeavored, however, to suppress the thought. His health was frail, and the work seemed above his strength. A minister's life at that time, too, was considered a hard life. It involved much labor and self-denial, and presented no prospect of earthly compensation. He shrunk from its trials and its responsibilities. At the meeting of the Nashville Presbytery in the spring of 1819, the great destitution of ministerial laborers in the bounds of the Presbytery was seriously considered, and a day of fasting and prayer was appointed in view of that destitution. The congregations were recommended to pray for an increase of ministers, and the preachers were to preach upon a call to the ministry. On the fast-day, Thomas Calhoon preached at Fall Creek, upon a call to the work. The sermon was delivered on Monday of a camp-meeting. It was a powerful effort, and made a deep impression. Robert Baker and another young man acknowledged their spiritual struggles on the subject, and, it was understood, gave themselves up to God that day for the work of the ministry.
At the fall meeting of the Presbytery of that year, on the 14th day of October, at the Big Spring Meeting-house, he was received as a candidate for the ministry. The text for his first trial sermon was Heb. ii. 3. The text assigned at the next Presbytery was Rom. vi. 23. At the following meeting of the Presbytery Mr. Baker, in conjunction with the writer, was licensed. This occurred at the Beech Meeting-house, in Sumner county, in October, 1822. Rev. Thomas Calhoon officiated. At this meeting of the Presbytery he was assigned for the whole of his time to the Nashville Circuit. This circuit extended through the most cultivated portion of Middle Tennessee. At the next meeting of the Presbytery he was assigned to the same work. At the fall meeting of the Presbytery in 1821 he was still continued, in conjunction with William Etherly, upon the Nashville Circuit. In the course of his first year's labor, he received what was considered a striking testimonial of his popularity as a preacher. Some of the ladies of the circuit combined, and presented him with a cloth suit. Other circuit-riders considered themselves high favored to be supplied with socks, and very common clothes--such as the ladies made themselves. A present of a cloth suit was a new thing under the sun. It was, however, well deserved on this occasion. His labors had been very useful, and he was greatly beloved.
In the fall of 1822 the Lebanon Presbytery was organized. It had been stricken off from the Nashville Presbytery by the preceding Synod. Mr. Baker lived within the bounds of the new Presbytery, and of course was transferred to its care.
At the meeting of the Lebanon Presbytery in 1823, he was set apart to the whole work of the ministry.
In the spring of 1823, in company with Abner W. Lansden, a licentiate of the Lebanon Presbytery, he was sent to East Tennessee. "Amiable, conciliatory, easy, and agreeable in his manners, sedate, deeply pious, affectionate, and sympathetic, he was a model missionary. Possessing respectable talents, a voice combining with the volume of the trumpet the soft melody of the lute, and a sympathy of soul that wooed his audience in the tenderest strains of the gospel, he was such a preacher as we are apt to imagine the beloved disciple was, who reclined upon his Master's bosom."* [*Life of George Donnell.] He labored in East Tennessee for twelve months, in conjunction with Mr. Lansden and others. In the winter months, however, his health suffered, and at the spring session of the Presbytery in 1824, he was assigned to the Lebanon Circuit, that he might be in the vicinity of his home in the event of his being unable to prosecute his labors from a farther failure of health.
In the fall or winter of 1825 Mr. Baker's father moved to Western Tennessee, and settled in Carroll county, first on Clear Creek, and afterward in the neighborhood of what is now McLemoresville. Robert Baker moved with him, and became a member of Hopewell Presbytery. From that time his labors were confined chiefly to Western Tennessee. He attended the last meeting of the Cumberland Synod. Its sessions were held at Franklin, Tennessee, in the fall of 1828. The following spring he was a member of the first General Assembly. Its sessions were held at Princeton, Kentucky, in May, 1829. He was also a member of the General Assembly of 1838, which met at Lebanon, Tennessee. It must not be inferred from the mention of these particulars that he was ever remiss in his attendance upon the judicatures of the Church. He was punctual in the discharge of these as well as other duties. He was trained in a school in which punctuality was required.
In the early part of the summer of 1829, Mr. Baker was married to a young lady, a member of the Church, and of very respectable family. In a few months, however, it was developed that he had bestowed his affections upon a very unworthy object. A separation was the result. His feelings and his happiness had been cruelly trifled with. It was a dark cloud over the path of a good man. He felt it to be a terrible blow. I performed the marriage service myself, and became fully acquainted with the feelings of the sufferer. Let the curtain of oblivion, however, drop upon a scene which was at the time so full of sadness and disappointment. In process of time, I believe in the winter of 1829 and 1830, he was divorced from his wife by the action of the Legislature of Tennessee.
On the 27th of December, 1831, he was married a second time, to Miss Sarah C. Hamilton, of Carroll county. He settled immediately in the neighborhood of his father-in-law, and remained there until his death. In the meantime he became the pastor of the Shiloh congregation, in the bounds of which his father-in-law's family had lived from the time of its organization. Here he labored as long as he had strength for any public service. I suppose the pastoral connection was dissolved by his death.
From the time Mr. Baker entered the ministry his health was feeble. His friends thought that he could not bear the labors and hardships of the service many years. He was himself under the impression that his race would be short. Still, he held up against encroaching infirmities until 1845. I spent two days at his camp-meeting in the fall of 1844. I had not seen him for years. His health and strength seemed at least equal to what I would have expected. Still he was very feeble. In the course of that winter he failed rapidly. Some time before his death his brother-in-law, who lived some miles distant, removed him to his own house, hoping that the change would afford some recreation and relief. The invalid soon, however, became worse, his family were sent for; he declined rapidly, and on the sixth day of March, 1845, he breathed his last. My informant says that "while he retained the proper exercise of his mind, all was peace and comfort." His remains were borne to what had been his home, on the day following his death, and on the next day were buried in the burying-ground at Shiloh. On the day of the burial, whilst the religious service connected with the occasion was conducted in the church by Rev. A. E. Cooper, his wife fainted. With considerable difficulty she was relieved of the affection, and revived. She witnessed the burial, and was taken to her home in a carriage by some friends. When she reached the house, seeming to be overpowered by a sense of her desolation, she fainted again, and never revived. She had appeared previously to be in perfect health, and to bear her bereavement with unusual presence of mind. Thus died a good man, and certainly a most devoted wife. Six fatherless and motherless children were left behind. Two of them have since died. The others, with one exception, are members of the Church. It was said at the time that Mr. Baker's friends, and the members of his congregation, were unusually kind and liberal in making provision for his children.
I append the following account from a respected minister, an eye-witness of the last hours of Mr. Baker, and of the melancholy circumstances which followed. The circumstances were so remarkable and afflicting, that a more detailed statement of them will be interesting:
"It was my privilege," says my correspondent, "to meet with Rev. Robert Baker frequently during his last illness. I had just entered the ministry. Being inexperienced, and subject to many discouragements, I esteemed it indeed a great privilege to be welcomed to his hospitable home, and there to have the benefit of his counsel and instruction. I found his home a resting-place and a quiet retreat for the young preacher, and that there was no one to whom he could go with more reliable assurances of sympathy and kindness. He talked to me frequently of the trials of his early ministry. Often have I listened for hours at the recital of his sufferings, both physical and mental. He was indeed a man of many sorrows. A few of his intimate friends knew something of these; but the world will never know what he suffered, for the reason that the history of his sufferings never will, never can be written. Yet in the midst of all, be it said, that he was the same patient, self-poised Christian philosopher, never murmuring, or repining, or at any time evincing a spirit of insubordination to the Divine will. His lamp was at all times trimmed and burning, and doubtless at any hour during the last few years of his life he could, in its full spirit, have adopted the language of the great apostle of the Gentiles, 'I am now ready to be offered.'
"I was present and witnessed the closing scene of his earthly pilgrimage. He was at the house of his brother-in-law, near McLemoresville, in Western Tennessee. he had been declining for some time previous to his removal there. His death, which soon occurred, was therefore no matter of surprise, either to his relatives around him, or to his friends more remote. In his last hours he was calm and self-possessed. His arrangements had all been made, and he only awaited the call of his Master. His wife and children had been previously committed to that God who has promised to be a friend to the fatherless and the widow. With an unshaken confidence in the faithfulness of Him who thus promises, he closed his eyes in death. The scene was indeed impressive, especially to the writer, who had never witnessed such an occurrence before.
"There was a circumstance connected with the death of this great and good man of a very remarkable character. While he was breathing his last in the presence of a concourse of weeping friends and relatives, the writer, with others present, observed that his wife, an excellent Christian lady, sat by the bedside apparently unmoved. She looked steadfastly into the face of her dying husband without shedding a tear or heaving a sigh. No satisfactory explanation could be given at the time of what seemed so strange, and, we may say, so unnatural. In the course of the proceedings, however, of the funeral solemnities, the mystery was explained. While listening to the funeral-sermon of her deceased husband in the Shiloh church, where he had so often ministered himself, she fainted and fell on the floor. She seemed to be lifeless for a time. But the attention of friends and attending physicians restored her to consciousness, and when the burial was over, she was able to ride in a carriage to her lonely and desolate home, which was but a few hundred yards distant from the church. Having walked into the house, at the suggestion of her friends she lay down on a convenient bed to rest. She asked her sister for some water. In less time than would be requisite for writing this sentence, the water was brought to her couch, but, lo! she was not there. The spirit had departed: Mrs. Baker had joined her sainted husband in a better world. Several physicians were called in with the utmost dispatch. They labored to a late hour in the evening to restore animation and consciousness, but their labors were unavailing. Death had done its work. She had gone to heaven, and would not return.
"The physicians present decided that her death was the result of excessive grief, which could not find expression--that if she could have given vent to her feelings by shedding tears, and other customary means, she might have lived."
Robert Baker belonged to what might be termed the third generation of Cumberland Presbyterian preachers. He was brought into the ministry by the fathers of the Church, and trained in their school. He had imbibed much of their spirit: from the time he entered the ministry he felt himself to be a consecrated man. He never, during his subsequent life, lost a sense of the holy obligations which the vows of his early manhood had imposed upon him. If a man could inherit religion, he would certainly have been one of the heirs. His father and mother were Christians of the old school, which flourished fifty years ago. Religion with them was an earnest matter--it was a business of life. He was brought up under the ministrations of Thomas Calhoon. The impressions made by Mr. Calhoon were deep and abiding. Mr. Baker was always a favorite with Mr. Calhoon, and if the sentiment had been reciprocated, it would not have been a matter of surprise, nor would the character of the teacher have been likely to impair that of the disciple.
Mr. Baker had many natural endowments which were favorable to the ministerial work. His mind, though not cultivated in the schools, was active and vigorous. What he read he understood, and retained in memory. He could use his acquisitions, too, with great readiness and freedom. He had an excellent spirit--he was kind, conciliating, unselfish--everybody loved him. His manner in the pulpit was natural and agreeable; it was more than agreeable--it was pleasing. His voice was unusually good. He delivered his sermons with an earnestness and a holy unction which seldom failed to make an impression.
I recollect the time of his first visit to Shiloh, where he ultimately settled, and was buried. It was upon the occasion of a camp-meeting. He had been unwell, but reached there on Saturday evening. He preached on Sabbath from the apostolic injunction, "Examine yourselves whether ye be in the faith; prove your ownselves; know ye not your ownselves how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates." It was a sacramental-sermon. It became a favorite sermon with him afterward. On that occasion it made a fine impression. He preached again on Monday, from the first Psalm. There were two good old men present, who had recently settled in the neighborhood with their families. They had been members of another Church, in Kentucky, and had been in the habit of hearing good preachers from their youth. They were captivated, however, with the preaching which they heard in the wilderness. They expressed earnest wishes that their old friends in Kentucky could be there, to hear what they were hearing. I need hardly add that these two old men with their families became members of Shiloh congregation. The old men have passed away, but their descendants are still there, earnest and laborious members of the Church.
At a certain time, whilst Mr. Baker and myself were cooperating in Western Tennessee, we were directed to hold a two-days' meeting in Huntingdon. No congregation had been organized in the place. There was no house of worship, and the community were thought to be rather impracticable on the subject of religion. The meeting was appointed, and the time came. We preached in the courthouse. The attendance was fair. The next day we preached in the court-house in like manner. The congregation was large. We felt serious in prospect of the responsibility. I recollect on our way to the meeting on Sabbath morning, I repeated to him the words of Abishai to Joab, when they were about entering into battle with the enemies of Israel: "Be of good courage, and let us behave ourselves valiantly for our people, and for the cities of our God; and let the Lord do that which is good in his sight." I preached that morning as well as I could. Mr. Baker followed. He preached from a passage in the Lord's Prayer: "But deliver us from evil." He denounced what were said to be the evils and vices of the place, and especially of the young men, with great boldness and severity. It was an earnest and terrible philippic. The people listened with respectful and profound attention. Of course some curiosity was excited to know how the last sermon would be received. In a few days the question was settled. The young men, instead of becoming offended, were so much pleased with the boldness and fidelity of the preacher, that they made him a present of a suit of fine clothes. Public attention was turned to the subject of religion to an extent to which it had never been turned before. Beyond that immediate result, we cannot tell what the more remote results may have been. One of those young men is now my neighbor, and a respected member of the Church.
Mr. Baker and myself were intimately connected a number of years in Western Tennessee in the work of the ministry. I knew him well. A small volume might be filled with incidents. The country was new. We were young men. The members of the Presbytery were nearly all young. The work imposed a heavy responsibility. Still, from the harvest which has been reaped, we may diffidently infer that some good seed was sown.
In the winter of 1829 and 1830 John C. Smith and James McKee died. They were both members of the Presbytery--men of promise, and greatly beloved. We were desired by their friends to deliver sermons as memorials of the deceased. The sermons were to be delivered together. We preached at Huntingdon, Trenton, Sandy Meeting-house, and Shiloh. It was a melancholy series of services. They related to the dead. With them, too, our cooperative labors came practically to a close. In a few days after the meeting at Shiloh we separated. He remained in Tennessee, and continued a faithful, laborious, and honored preacher and pastor. I went to Kentucky, and entered upon a course which, in the providence of God, has led to what was certainly not of my own devising. God rules as he will.
[Source: Beard, Richard. Brief Biographical Sketches of Some of the Early Ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Methodist Publishing House, Published for the author, 1867, pages 219-234]